Good news and bad news. But first, the good news…
For the first half of 2014, a total of 56% percent of newly installed electricity generation capacity within the US came from wind and solar energy sources. In total, that’s more than 3,300 gigawatts of new power from non carbon emitting energy generation for the first six months of 2014 alone.
Solar energy, in particular, saw a major increase from 2013 — jumping 47% in new installed capacity over the same period last year. In total, the US now boasts more than 15 gigawatts of solar energy generation capacity — racing to catch up to US wind generating capacity that now stands at nearly 62 gigawatts.
A majority of new solar power generation came from utility-based projects. But strong new additions in residential solar power also buoyed total additions. The massive leap in new solar capacity was spurred by rapidly falling panel prices combined with much more robust avenues for those seeking to install solar — at the individual, agency, and utility scale. Municipal and institutional solar power generation also saw a substantial leap with government buildings, libraries, schools and churches taking the solar plunge.
Wind showed a substantial recovery from the first half of 2013, which only saw 2 megawatts of new wind after conservatives in Congress spear-headed an assault on the renewable energy production tax credit in an attempt to stymie new alternative energy sources. The blood-letting pushed wind off a track in which it was gaining between 5-10 gigawatts of new power generation annually during 2008 to 2012. Due to falling wind prices and rising gas and coal prices, however, wind appears to be staging a comeback to previous rates of adoption.
Overall, it’s an excellent start to a year that will almost certainly see more major new alternative energy resource additions.
Natural Gas — A Bridge to More Carbon Emissions
As for the bad news, 40% of the new generation capacity came from natural gas…
Natural gas has been promoted as a ‘bridge to clean energy.’ But the fact that each new natural gas plant installation extends the life-time of US carbon emissions is a black eye on this green-washed claim.
It’s true that natural gas emits less carbon when burned than coal. But the ground-water endangering fracking process also leaks a portion of the fracked gas into the atmosphere as methane. And methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20 year time-frame. Adding in the effect of methane leakage makes fracked natural gas as bad or nearly as bad as coal when taking into account the total industrial cycle heat forcing.
In addition, as noted above, continuing to construct natural gas plants now locks the US into an economic commitment to keep burning natural gas far into the future. In this way, on this path, our economy will continue to emit large volumes of carbon well past mid century. And given an immediately imminent and dangerous hothouse warming crisis, we simply can’t afford to keep emitting for so long.
In essence, we should be pushing to have all new energy capacity come from renewables even as we work to shut down existing carbon-fired power plants as rapidly as possible. And the already existing carbon-based infrastructure is massive — composing nearly 430 gigawatts of generating capacity for natural gas and 304 gigawatts for coal. We should be looking at ways to rapidly reduce this massive, carbon-emitting monstrosity. Not continue to add more to it.
In fact, a new research study found that by adding new natural gas capacity, CO2 emissions were increased as the potential for new renewable energy additions were crowded out by competition and as the life-span of fossil fuel based infrastructure was extended. In essence, these common-sense findings are a strong argument for no new fossil fuel based additions at all.
Some of our more rational government officials have paid lip-service to the notion that the US should take a leading role on climate change. And this is a very valuable sentiment. However, real leadership does not involve adding new fossil fuel capacity or seeking new fossil fuel resources. True climate leadership is based in rapidly phasing out the burning of fossil fuels entirely, not locking them in for decades of continued use.